PR Nightmare

In 1982, seven people died by taking Tylenol which had been laced with cyanide.  A deranged individual poisoned the product after it left the factory. The end result was that all pharmaceutical companies have raised packaging standards and the incident hasn’t been repeated. 

In 1984, a DuPont manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India released tons of poisonous gas, killing thousands of people and sickening thousands more.  Again, the company took steps to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. 

Both companies have recovered from the public relations nightmares that the incidents caused.  In the Tylenol case, consumers briefly lost confidence in the product, and over-the-counter medications in general, but they knew that Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, weren’t at fault. All Tylenol products were removed from store shelves for a while, but eventually returned.  By the way, the person responsible for the poisonings has never been caught.

The Bhopal incident, as terrible as it was, had much less of an impact on DuPont, primarily because many of its products are not sold to the end user.  You use their products every day and have no idea that DuPont was involved.  I suppose DuPont’s most recognized brand is their auto paint, promoted by NASCAR’S Jeff Gordon.

Now we have a scandal in the National Basketball Association.  It’s been alleged that an NBA referee has been betting on games that he officiated.  If the allegations turn out to be true, while no one has been physically harmed, this could be one of the biggest PR disasters in the history of American business.  We Americans love our sports.  We expect our leagues, whether they’re hi-level professionals like the NBA, or the sandlot leagues where our kids play, to have integrity.  We’re competitive people.  We love to win.  But we expect the games to be fair.  In spite of what we may yell in the heat of the moment, we really don’t think the ref has money on the game.  We really don’t think the umpire is on the payroll of the other team.  With the possible exception of professional wrestling, we don’t really believe that the game has been decided before the teams ever take the field.

Mark Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks, an appropriate name for his team since he’s usually involved in some sort of controversy.  He’s been an outspoken critic of NBA officiating for years.  But, on his blog, Blog Maverick, he takes a very level-headed position on the current situation.  Basically he sees it as an opportunity for the league to improve and get stronger.  Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but his comments are right on the money.

[Update:  As I’m writing this, I hear David Sterns, the NBA commisioner, on the news saying that he believes the accused referee is a "rogue" and that the cheating problem is just an isolated incident.  For his own sake, and the sake of the league, he’d better make darned sure that that’s the case.  If the problem is more wide-spread, he needs to let the fans know, right away.  Any delay, or the appearance of a cover-up will just make things worse.]

Here’s the thing, no business is immune from a PR disaster.  Things go wrong.  Bad things happen to good people.  Hopefully you’ll never have to deal with a situation that could put your business in jeopardy, but, if you do, Cuban’s suggestions are excellent.  In particular, he says, "
Calamity can be a catalyst for significant change. "

So, what should you do?  Here are the steps to effective disaster recovery, primarily based on the Tylenol model:

  • Acknowledge the problem and apologize for it.  Any attempt to hide it will almost surely blow up in your face.  Here it is, twenty-five years after the Tylenol poisonings, Tylenol is selling better than ever, and the steps they used to recover are still being studied by business students. 
  • Compensate anyone who has been hurt.
  • Find the source of the problem and fix it.  Make sure that it never happens again.
  • Aggressively let people know what you’ve done.  Get the word out.  Turn lemons into lemonade.

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